The Montreal Canadiens are approaching free agency with their defence corps mostly set. On the right, P.K. Subban will play major minutes on the top pairing. Jeff Petry, who opted to forgo the free agency process to stay with the Canadiens, will be a more-than-capable second-pairing defender. The right side of the third pairing should also be quite solid, whether that spot is occupied by veteran Tom Gilbert or sophomore Greg Pateryn.
The left side of those pairings is not quite as robust, with the current options being Alexei Emelin, an aging Andrei Markov, and a promising-yet-unproven Nathan Beaulieu. Looking at the depth chart, there are very few members to shore up the left side from within the organization, with only Mac Bennett and as-yet-unsigned Jarred Tinordi as the only two players who could be moved up to the NHL roster.
The lack of left-side defensive depth will quite possibly be the main area of focus at the upcoming NHL Entry Draft (as it was in our mock draft selection), but there are a few affordable, NHL-ready defenders available through free agency.
Chris Butler is a 28-year-old left-handling defenceman who played all 82 games for the Calgary Flames in 2013-14 before participating in 33 games for the St. Louis Blues last season. A lot of his time in St. Louis was spent alongside top talents Alex Pietrangelo (approximately 140 of his 525 five-versus-five minutes) and Kevin Shattenkirk (about 100 minutes), contributing three goals and six assists in that role.
After initially signing a sub-$600 000 entry level contract with the Buffalo Sabres to begin his NHL career, Butler progressed from a $1.2- to $1.7-million-dollar-per-year salary with the Flames before being offered $650 000 for one year of service with St. Louis last season.
From this HERO Chart (available at Domenic Galamini's Own The Puck site) you can see that Butler has managed decent shot generation and point production over his last three seasons (when viewed in the context of a potential third-pairing defender), but his suppression rates on the defensive side haven't been as good. Reducing his minutes from the top-four range he has been given in his recent career to those more suited to a third-pairing role could result in an increase in those defensive stats.
If Butler were offered a one-year contract around the league minimum value ($575 000 for the 2015-16 season), it would be a low-risk gamble to add a player who could step into an NHL game on an emergency basis or to give a player like Markov a rest versus lighter opposition. The cost of losing Butler on waivers would be negligible in the event he were stowed away in St. John's for AHL depth instead of occupying a spot on the 23-man roster.
Like Butler, the 30-year-old Matt Hunwick enjoyed several years of earning around $1.5 million per season (with the Boston Bruins and Colorado Avalanche) before receiving a one-year trial contract for 2014-15: a $600 000 deal with the New York Rangers.
As a member of the Rangers, Hunwick played 55 regular season games — scoring two goals and nine assists — and suited up for six games in New York's playoff run. His most common defensive partner was Kevin Klein, with whom he played over 220 five-on-five minutes, followed by deadline acquisition Keith Yandle (about 140 minutes).
Hunwick has outperformed his top-end third-pairing minutes in most categories, being very proficient at getting the puck to the net, but failing to convert that offensive-zone possession into actual scoring; reminiscent of a player who was brought in by the Rangers the previous season in former-Hab Raphael Diaz.
Hunwick could be a very good minute-eater on the third-pairing that wouldn't spend his shifts in the defensive zone hoping to survive long enough to get to the bench without surrendering a goal. His stats suggest a player worth more than the $600 000 he earned last season, so he will be looking to get a raise in free agency this summer. A reasonable contract in the range of $0.8 to 1.0 million could make Hunwick a decent addition to the Canadiens' top seven.
Matt Irwin set a career high in goals last season, scoring eight with the San Jose Sharks and equalling his career high in points with 19. In his first season earning at least a $1 million salary, Irwin saw action in 53 games, averaging about 17 minutes of ice time per outing.
The 27-year-old defenceman played alongside Scott Hannan for a large part of the season (approximately 230 of his 800 five-on-five minutes), seeing time alongside Brent Burns (over 160 minutes) and rookie Matt Tennyson (140 minutes) as well.
Those minutes played with Hannan could have been a contributing factor in Irwin's less-than-stellar shot suppression numbers. Hannan, who is no longer in San Jose's new restructuring plan, has struggled mightily the last few seasons.
Taking the defensive quality of his most common defence partner into account, there could be more value to be had out of the relatively-young Irwin. His well-above-average offensive output will demand a higher price than the other defencemen profiled, but his production would make him a valuable addition to give the Canadiens offensive threats throughout the back-end lineup, including being a viable option for a second-unit powerplay. He (along with Hunwick) could also provide a safety net to hold the blueline together in the event of a mid-season trade removing a defensive-top-six body.
A deal in the range of $1.2 to 1.5 million could be a decent contract for the Canadiens, though it would push their current cap obligations for seven defencemen to nearly $30 million. There could be several other teams that have been starved for offence from the blueline more than willing to offer a higher figure, however.